With all the pandemic-year lookbacks, so much of the focus is on the financial impact on the music industry. No shows. No revenue. No outlets. No work.
But we’re just starting to see the impact on the art.
“All the writers I know, no one wrote for the first six months,” said Tim Holland, on the phone from his homestead in Brunswick. “Everyone was depressed and anxious and music just felt frivolous. As someone who processes the world and engages in struggle, that informs my creative process. When that suffering is just brought back home with an atomic ferocity, that’s a tough place to process.”
The artistic question for Holland, one of the more prolific rappers of this generation as his alter ego Sole, runs something like this: When you already viewed American society as an immoral capitalist abomination, what do you do when the truth of that view is made so obviously clear?
“It’s all just so dystopian,” he said. “My sourdough starter died and I never learned to play guitar and I don’t fuck with Zoom.”
At some point, though, a survival instinct kicks, sooner for some than others, and for reasons both psychological and practical. When music is your job, living with capitalism means you need to get to work. Sole’s only option was to lean into it, resulting in the searing and powerful “MBFX,” a rap record to sit alongside recent societal indictments penned by Mainers like Brzowski and Anthony Maintain.
The opening “My Cup” certainly doesn’t beat around the bush: “They tell me to write something happy,” Sole sing-songs. “Why would I write something happy?/ I’ll be happy when the bankers and the Silicon Valley assholes fuck off the earth.”
And in case that wasn’t clear, he offers a refrain that reframes the classic Wu-Tang anthem: “Capitalism kills everything around me.” Then he finishes with a sample from Eric Harmon’s classic rock ballad “It Hurts Too Much”: “A lot of empty words that I’ve already heard/ Ain’t gonna work tonight/ Don’t want to talk about it anymore/ ‘Cause that ain’t gonna make things right.”
So, what’s going to make things right?
For Sole, that looks a lot like sustainable farming, mutual aid, and a return to localism. You can hear his theories on all of that, and some interesting conversation with anarchist thinkers, on his podcast, which used to be “Solecast” and is now the high-mindedly (tongue-in-cheek) named “Institute for Post-American Studies.”
“If we’re really talking about the end of the lie that we’ve gotten used to,” he said, “there’s not going to be some fixed point in the future where everything changes. We have to start building those things now.” Episode one of the new series features Mckenzie Wark, author of “Capitalism Is Dead.”
What localism, permaculture, and mutual aid offer is an independence from a “state” that can’t be trusted.
“When we’re constantly reliant on the state and politicians for our desires and needs,” Sole argues, “that power can just as easily be taken away, as we’ve seen with the pandemic. One month you have unemployment, the next you don’t. … Rather than demanding things from people in power, you go out and create those things.”
Of course, he acknowledged, no commune in Brunswick is going to create nuclear energy or cure cancer, but it’s important that people claw back a kind of sovereignty over their everyday lives.
These sentiments rifle through the latest album, which with its title nods to a series of “mansbestfriend” albums Sole has released as purely solo projects, their production values steadily improving with Sole’s beat-making skills. For “mansbestfriend7,” from 2015, all of the tracks were simply named with Roman numerals, but even the disco-fueled upbeat number like “ix” is consistent in its message: “They think we need better politicians/ Who are they kidding?”
On the latest, we get the EDM-fueled “Adrift,” where Sole informs the middle class, “I’m sorry, no one’s gonna save you.” The bounce and vocal pattern and attack of “Child” has all the clarity of Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.” And in “Haunted,” a poppy glow-up, Sole reminds you, “I got nothing to sell in this hellscape/ But some things are out of my control/ Buy my tape.”
Where Sole is most captivating is in this push and pull of ideology and reality, this ability to be dire and entertaining, this understanding that you can’t be heard if no one wants to listen, this existential crisis so many feel when faced with upholding a moral responsibility to society at large and feeding one’s family.
“I’d rather be ashes than dust,” Sole barks to finish “Haunted,” mimicking Neil Young’s appraisal of Johnny Rotten, who famously penned “Anarchy in the UK.”
And if there’s one thing that seems clear when talking to Tim Holland and grasping the enormity of his consumption and output, it’s that Sole never sleeps.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].
2 weeks, 5 songs
• Synth Club of Southern Maine, “Masks” — This collaborative group of digital music-makers has put together a full album worth of tracks composed via rule sets and exercises to benefit the Apohadian Theater, featuring everything from near silence to doom and gloom, to upbeat dance tracks.
• Alghol, “The Raven’s Call” — The latest from Portland’s burgeoning black metal scene, listen for the interesting contrast between the languid melody line in the guitar and the impossible speed of the kick drum.
• OldHat Stringband, “when this world turns back around again” — Made for the RPM Challenge that asks bands to create whole records each February, this full-length from husband-and-wife team Whitney and Steve Roy is a meditative and artful slice of melancholy, delicately performed.
• Awon, Phoniks, Masta Ace, DJ III Digitz, “Everlasting Game” — South Portland producer Phoniks continues his run of timeless-sounding hip-hop tracks, full of ’70s soul riffs, effortless rhyming, and crisp cutting and crabbing.
• An Overnight Low, “Paracetamol Philistines” — As part of a long-running project, the Chad Walls-fronted outfit apes UK culture, this time working their daily headache medicine into the title and pontificating on train trips that sometimes go awry. But do they have Shoots & Ladders in England? Or is that a Korn reference?
— Sam Pfeifle